Ireland has been a place lately defined by dramatic change. The change brought by surging wealth developed during the Celtic Tiger years, when the country catapulted from one of the economic under-performers of Europe to the shining star that countries not just here but around the world were striving to be. Change brought, when that glitter and wealth came crashing down in the Great Recession and a new reality came for the Emerald Isle, austerity. The change that peace can bring, and the changed daily norms that the Good Friday Agreement brings to Northern Ireland. Changes in Dublin, transformed from a peripheral European city to a European headquarters of tech, finance, social media, and a 21st century economy.
I came to Ireland to study how communities change, how economies change, and how the people present in times of change impact their communities and transform to exist in a new environment. Being from Flint, Michigan, the reality of change’s inevitability sunk into me growing up as I saw an entire economy transformed, an entire community’s foundation shifted, and family members impacted daily by this new norm.
Just last weekend with the University College Dublin Politics and International Relations Society, I spent three days in Belfast and experienced both the dramatic changes occurring in that community (redevelopments of the Center City, the Titanic Quarter, the Cathedral Quarter) and yet see how the vestiges of the past still color everyday life through “peace walls” two dozen feet high and murals serving as a constant reminder of a not-too-distant past that remains all too present. There’s no place that reminds people of that past more than Stormont today, without government for ten months and counting due to irreconcilable differences.
And yet, despite these challenges, Belfast is a changing community that appears to be embracing a new economy, adapting from a gritty industrial past to invite industries fitted to a new global economy, and I’m reminded of my own hometown in Michigan and the challenges present across America’s industrial heartland. Changes from Belfast’s industrial and shipping past are present in Dublin as well, as cranes dot the sky across the Docklands, a place once known much more for blue collar workers than today’s white collar offices.
In this changing world, how do we make sure everyone feels included, an equal part of this new reality? That question of inclusion is present in Stormont, it’s present in the Belfast and Dublin neighborhoods not yet seeing the kind of investment pouring into the Docklands and the Titanic Quarter. It’s present with those left on the outside of Ireland’s pernicious housing crisis, as home prices and rents skyrocket to Celtic Tiger era heights and beyond. Understanding this question will be the focus of my year here.
In studying this change, I hope to change as well. Ireland provides such a rich environment to study and learn from Europe’s friendliest people. The lived experience of this country provides so many lessons to be brought back to the United States, and I hope to grow and change myself as I learn with and from the Irish.